As a child of immigrant parents, I find myself constantly wondering if my small achievements will ever add up to my parent’s sacrifices. It is one thing to go after an unconventional dream, and yet another thing to not entirely know what that dream is.
I have been in a lot of places in the past few years. It is easy to romanticize the excitement of these experiences, and it would be a lie to say the time spent jumping from place to place were anything but. The exhilaration however, doesn’t abate the growing sense of displacement, as well as increasing anxiety about my lack of financial security.
I do not feel incentivized to work for substantial amounts of money; it seems I have built up such a large well of self-importance that I can’t commit my time or energy to anything I don’t personally deem meaningful or positively impactful. I say this with a deliberate sense of self-deprecation, because I cannot tell sometimes if I am a person of strong conviction or just extreme laziness. Sometimes it’s too hard to tell from the inside of my mind.
From Summer 2017 to now I have spent 6 months in Mendocino county, 3 months in San Jose, 3 months in Nepal, 3 months in Marin county, and now 3 weeks in my family’s home before I’m back in Nepal again. As always tends to happen, time and distance from my work in Nepal disconnect me from the sense of identity I’ve cultivated there.
I have to remind myself, as if it were some spiritual mantra, that the work I do does matter. In the short 3 months I spent in Nepal in 2018, we built a new camp to house volunteers for many decades to come, and assisted in the completion of 30 earthquake safe homes that were made with local and sustainable materials. For the Youth Outreach Program, I worked with my Nepali counterpart Jenisha, who we hired on as a Conscious Impact staff member, to launch a new Girls Empowerment Program at a second nearby high school, increasing our reach to about 180 students in our district area.
The turn out to the first Aiselu Kharkha Girls Empowerment Program was staggering — nearly 60 girls who barely knew either of us, but after having learned about the premise of the program, were extraordinarily eager to attend.
This trip to Nepal matured inklings of opinions I once had into founded perspectives. Western views of poverty in the developing world are limited at best; non-profits and charities at the advertising level portray the alleviation of global inequality as simply “helping poor people”, when the complexity of western hegemony and globalized capitalism is more nuanced. The work is not about simply being charitable, but getting to the source of economic and political dynamics that cause poverty and work diaspora (i.e. the oppression of women, lack of education, reinforcement of our current western-style capitalism). The phenomena of work diaspora particularly hits home, as it is the precursor to my very existence as a first generation American.
When I got back to California for the summer, I worked as an outdoor education teacher for a Marin-based nonprofit called Slide Ranch. Without a doubt, Slide was one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived, and it was a privilege to have learned so much about naturalism in the context of my home state. While there, I got to meet and live with some of the most amazing and heartfelt individuals, who imbued in me lessons about living off the land, reciprocity in our relationship to animals, and how to create a space of wonder and learning for children. I spent my days leading kids on hikes to tide pools and cypress tree forests, taught about sustainable energy and organic cooking, played games and made watercolor paintings — against the backdrop of one of the most exquisite views of the rugged Northern California coast.
On the flip side, I traded in the opportunity to earn sustainable compensation for a holistically fulfilling experience — quite the archetypical ultimatum in this day and age. And of course, one thing that ate at the back of my mind during my residency, was the undeniable fact that the experience I was facilitating would have been completely out of my purview as a child — for reasons both cultural and financial. I still struggle with knowing little about how to make such pristine nature more accessible to the type of communities I have come from.
The irony I face every time I am back in America is how much more spirituality and mindfulness has become commodified. Again, it does not matter how rich or poor you are, for even in the poorest places I’ve been in Nepal, no person is safe from the binds of materialism. I am intrigued by how people are attempting to both search for authenticity and alleviate their environmental impact, through their most powerful means of expression — their dollar. I don’t condone this as wrong in the slightest; if anything, it is simply the (unfortunate) diagnosis of our society’s infrastructure, that our strongest means of creating change is through our currency.
And you don’t need me to tell you this, because Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and [insert other religious or spiritual deity here] already told you: there is nothing you can buy that will bring you spiritual enlightenment. And if you find yourself bending over backwards to find it, then in all likelihood you’re only getting farther away.
Though I like to think of myself as adaptable to different environments and groups of people, I’ve always found that I’m most comfortable around working class folks — people who operate from places of honesty, humor and a zero tolerance for bullshit. I spent this past weekend working as a cook in an airport lounge with a bunch of Filipino, Mexican, El Salvadorean, and Nepali workers, who immediately welcomed me and treated me like one of their own. I was comforted by their camaraderie, but could not repress a sense of guilt at the divide in our circumstances: the fact that even though I am strapped for money, it was not imperative to my survival to work there.
The juxtaposition between the hard working folks I met in that kitchen, and the kind of affluence I was inundated with in Marin, leaves a strange taste in my mouth about what accessibility and mobility actually looks like in the Bay Area. It makes sense that home starts looking like a foreign place the less time you spend in it.
It’s this inverted experience, being so familiar with my surroundings, and yet feeling so out of place. I am especially jarred by the smallest changes — like a movement of furniture, or noticing a closed down business I once frequented, or having to reacquaint myself with friends I’ve known for years.
Home is where I find myself incubating, re-evaluating my life choices, and reflecting on everything that has subsequently happened in my life. I am learning that it never takes very much for me to be back at square one, easily face to face with the same demons and insecurities that I have fought against my whole life. When I struggle to value the person I have become, I find myself envying other peoples’ perceived certainty and stability, the smoke and mirrors of my ego ready to exploit any cognitive dissonance I have about my life and self-esteem.
If my recent forays into zen Buddhism have taught me anything — or really just all life experience in general — it’s that life is not about reaching the goal, but about experiencing the process. I try to tell myself that my life doesn’t need to add up to some grand list of achievements, even though our production-oriented, capitalistic society has conditioned me otherwise.
Sometimes it feels like the line between irrationality and pragmatism is very thin. Maybe that is the privilege of being a millennial, or maybe it’s just my inability to feel confident during times of upheaval and transition.
At the end of the day, I have a roof over my head, and food to eat, and people I love who unconditionally love me back. I am going back to a place on the other side of the world that has become a different version of home. I am going back to continue work that is not easy, but gives my life meaning and, hopefully with all its good intentions, is empowering others with fewer options than me to have more control over their lives. Even if I struggle to feel okay with the person who lives inside my skin, I am damn happy to be alive. The hardest thing about moving forward is the not knowing. So here’s to all of us keeping on, wading through the bullshit, and honoring our authentic selves, as best we can while the earth keeps inevitably turning.
As always, thanks for listening.